Book Worth Harvesting

Harvesting The Heart by Jodi Picoult

It was about eight months ago that I first "discovered" the books of Jodi Picoult, and since then I have become a major fan! I haven't yet read all of her novels, but I own them all, (including a signed copy of her most recent release, Second Glance), and I look forwards to reading each and every one.

Picoult, in my opinion, is an incredible storyteller, and her novels are always absorbing and entertaining. Beyond their entertainment value, Picoult's stories always give me a lot to think about. Knowingly or not, she poses questions that are relevant to my own life and to my own relationships.

Last winter I had the chance to meet Jodi Picoult at a local book reading and signing. I asked her about common themes that run through her novels, and to my surprise, she replied that there really aren't any. She explained that she takes ideas from life and from current events, and poses questions to herself that develop into story lines for novels. If anything, she said, the common thread that runs through her novels is what we will do for love, and what we will do to and for the people that we love. I can see that in her books, but what I see more is the question of "identity". In each of Picoult's novels (that I have read to date) the underlying theme seems to be who we really are as individuals, and how our identity can be molded or masked by our relationships with others.

In Harvesting The Heart, Picoult introduces us to Paige O'Toole. We witness as Paige grows from a young child into an adult. Paige is sweet and innocent, but she is plagued by unanswered questions and tormented by the weight of her secrets. We see her leave home and go out into the world alone. We watch as she falls in love, gets married, and becomes a mother. Throughout the years, and despite the changes in her life, we see Paige's unanswered questions follow her and make her question her abilities and her self worth.

As a very young child, Paige had a close relationship with her mother. The two of them shared secrets and dreams. It was almost as though the two of them were equals rather than mother and daughter. They took care of each other - Paige caring for her mother as her mother cared for her. When she was just five years old, Paige's mother "ran away" from home and was never heard from again. Paige was raised by her father, who loved her dearly, but she always hoped that her mother would return, and she wondered what she had done wrong to make her mother leave.

Immediately after her high school graduation, Paige leaves home, carrying with her another secret and another disappointment. As she runs from her past, her hopes for her future and for art school are destroyed. She is plagued by the idea that she has somehow failed both her parents. She finds herself alone in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Taking a job in a diner, Paige dazzles the customers with her incredible artistic talents, and with her ability to draw more than just her subject's image, but also something more personal and private about their hopes, dreams, and experiences. It is at the diner that Paige meets Nicholas Prescott, a Harvard University medical student. Nicholas is several years older than Paige, and comes from a privileged past. The two have little in common, yet they are drawn together into a relationship that surprises both with its intensity. When Nicholas announces his engagement to Paige, his parents do not approve, and disown the young couple. Nicholas gives up his parent's financial support, and he and Paige settle into a simpler life with Nicholas working hard to finish medical school, and Paige working hard to pay for the tuition.

A few years later, Nicholas is working his way up the ladder of success as a cardiac surgeon, and Paige is trying to be the perfect doctor's wife - getting up early to make her husband breakfast and pack him a lunch for his long days at the hospital. Nicholas' career has taken over their lives. Paige feels lost in a foreign world. She has been isolated from her parents and her parents-in-law, she sees little of her husband, and her dreams of higher education and art school have long since died.

When Paige becomes pregnant, she is terrified. How can she be a mother? She never really had a mother of her own. By the time little Max is born - looking so much like his daddy - Paige is petrified. She has difficulty satisfying the needs of a newborn, and no longer has the energy to dote on her husband as she once did. She is convinced that she will be a horrible mother. When Max slips off of the couch and gets a bloody nose, Paige is certain that the accident is her fault - that she is an incompetent mother - and without warning, she leaves home - like her mother had so many years earlier. What follows is a search for her identity, and a confrontation with all of the ghosts from her past.

I don't need to share the details of Paige's journey here. If I did, you might not enjoy the process of discovery when you read Harvesting The Heart. What I can tell you is that the novel closes with a bittersweet ending. Paige finds the answers to her questions, and is able to start over on a healthier and more fulfilling path. Likewise, Nicholas is forced to examine his identity and priorities. Changes, however, involve compromise, and along the road of self-actualization, some things have been sacrificed.

What I found interesting in the novel is how Paige, through her artwork, had such insight into the identity of strangers. She somehow "knew" things about their lives, and was able to reveal those things to her subjects, yet she was such a stranger to herself. Paige become so absorbed with being whom she thought others - her mother, her father, her husband, her son - wanted her to be, that she completely lost touch with who she really was and what she really wanted in life.

Through Paige and Nicholas story, we can look at our own identities. Who are we, and what do we want in life? How are we shaped by our choices and our obligations? How do we keep a balance between our dreams and our responsibilities? Most importantly, we can examine how to make changes in our lives - to take control and steer our lives down a path of our own choosing.

At one point in the novel, Picoult reminds us that fairytales always have happy endings. Life is not a fairytale, and people are often faced with trying times and uncertain fates. What this novel reminded me, is that we are the masters of our own destiny, and we can make choices that will allow our true identity to shine and our dreams to be met. I like that message, and I truly enjoyed reading Harvesting The Heart.


-- D. Igo